The Regional Review

Volume VI - Nos. 3 & 4

March-April, 1941



For untold centuries the barrier islands now included in the Cape Hatteras National Seashore have been moving landward. Not moving fast enough to measure with the naked eye, but with the tedious pace of a changing earth. Ocean waves roll sand and shell high upon the beach. The wind dries and picks up the fine sand and shell grains and blows them across to build up the leeward side of the islands.

Only the most hardy plants are able to survive on this strip of eternally twisting and shifting sand, known locally as "the wash", and extending from Oregon Inlet, fifty miles down the edge of the ocean to Hatteras Point.

Thousands of tiny white families make their home in the sand

Only the highest elevations of the sand dunes are safe from normal tides. To these elevations come the least terns, thousands of them, to lay their eggs and rear their young. From the middle of May to mid-July, the air is filled with white ghosts that swing from the sand dunes out over the ocean and back again, feeding on the almost limitless supply of crabs and tiny fish.

On the highest strip of the sand, above the reaching fingers of the waves, the eggs are laid and the downy young are hatched. The nest is an unrimmed hollow in the warm, dry sand and sea shell fragments, without lining or nesting material of any kind. Both the eggs and downy young are so similar to the mottled appearance of the high sand bank that human eyes must look closely to find them at all.

sand dunes
Sands on the barrier islands are shifting constantly

The least terns are ardent parents. Sometimes the mother bird will stand for long periods to protect her young from the blistering sun on the beach. When storms drive roaring waves across the sands of the nesting site, the parent birds will hover pathetically above their nests as long as the eggs or young survive.

On Hatteras the colonies are large and sometimes many hundreds of nests are separated from one another by only a few feet. Sometimes the nests are near those of the royal, caspian and common terns.

There are no highways down Hatteras. It is almost impossible to build highways where the earth shifts constantly beneath the layers of concrete or asphalt. But much of the land is privately owned and automobiles travel along the sand spit daily. When the tide is out and the beach is exposed, the automobiles travel on the hard wet sand. But there is also a sand road winding through the dunes, into the heart of the nesting areas used by the terns.

sand dunes
Only the most hardy plants are able to survive

To travel this road, the local citizens lower the air pressure in their auto tires, so that the tread is flattened against the ground. This gives better traction and keeps the car from getting stuck. It does an other thing, too. It increases the damage to the colonies of nesting terns.

Each year thousands of eggs and young birds are mashed under the wheels of automobiles which travel down the cape. There are no means of determining the exact annual mortality of birds from motorist travel. But it is high. The young birds tumble into the tire treads made in the sand. Sometimes, too, the eggs are crushed.

A plan should be evolved for the protection of the least tern on Cape Hatteras. With the number of automobiles down the cape increasing each year, some plan must eventually be worked out for the protection of the thousands of tiny white families that make their homes in the sand.

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Date: 04-Jul-2002